TV Review: ‘House of the Dragon’ Season One Episode Four: ‘King of the Narrow Sea’
Series Plot: Set approximately 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon chronicles the events of The Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that nearly tore the entire Seven Kingdoms apart.
Episode Plot: Rhaenyra cuts short her tour of various noble houses looking for a possible suitor and returns to King’s Landing. Prince Daemon also returns after several years in the Stepstones, presumably to challenge Viserys’ authority. Queen Alicent and Princess Rhaenyra begin to reconnect as do Daemon and Rhaenyra. However, after Daemon takes Rhaenyra out for a night of debauchery, an inflammatory scandal threatens the court, one that could have significant ramifications throughout the realm.
Review: Another week and another episode of palace intrigue and political maneuvering. Although this is the first episode I’ve seen this year that felt a little like “filler” (for lack of a better word), it’s nevertheless still compelling.
We begin at Storm’s End, where Lord Boremund Baratheon assists Rhaenyra as she entertains possible suitors. Rhaenyra being Rhaenyra, she rejects them all and abruptly cuts the tour short and returns to King’s Landing. In her defense, many of her suitors have been egregiously old or far too young. This scene may be significant down the road, however, as the support of House Baratheon should factor heavily into the Dance of the Dragons. Also, that kid who slays the smartass in front of everyone; keep an eye on him as that’s Benjicot Blackwood, who is famously known as “Bloody Ben” in the history of Westeros.
As Rhaenyra journeys home, Caraxes and Prince Daemon perform a Top Gun style flyby announcing his return to King’s Landing. After several years away, Rhaenyra is excited to see her uncle return. Most of the court at King’s Landing is as well as they gather in the throne room when Daemon approaches. Daemon enters sporting a crown as he’s been dubbed by many as the “King of the Narrow Sea.” At first, things look like they may come to violence as Lord Commander Harold Westerling puts a sword to Daemon’s chest. However, in a shocking move, Daemon gives up his crown, swears fealty to his brother, and the two embrace. Daemon’s actions immediately had my Spidey sense tingling. Daemon’s self-interest and ambition know no bounds and the thought that he would suddenly somehow become obsequious and subservient rings false.
Viserys and Daemon reconnect with Viserys weirdly bringing up that their mother favored Daemon. (Mommy issues anyone?) What’s really disturbing here is how drunken and besotted Viserys has become. He’s callous and dismissive of Alicent when she suggests that Daemon may want to see the new tapestries. It’s the first time I’ve really seen Viserys come off as an asshole and I can’t say that I care for it. To be clear, it makes sense, it’s just pissing me off and Alicent deserves better.
If anything, Viserys’ callousness helps Rhaenyra and Alicent reconnect. It’s clear that both are extremely lonely and miss each other’s companionship. Alicent seems jealous of the fact that Rhaenyra has a choice of suitors, an opportunity Alicent wasn’t afforded. Nonetheless, Rhaenyra doesn’t see it that way and is looking for romance. Rhaenyra makes a meanspirited offhand remark that she doesn’t want to be locked away and “squeeze out heirs” which is exactly what Alicent has been doing. Rhaenyra immediately regrets her statement and the two seem to bond a little more.
Daemon and Rhaenyra have a heart-to-heart with Rhaenyra again cutting straight through his bullshit. She knows he’s there for something she just can’t determine what it is. However, Daemon masterfully turns the discussion to the concept of marriage, a prospect Daemon sees as political, and Rhaenyra sees as a death sentence. The choices of what a male can do and what a female can do as well as the consequences and possible fallout are vastly different. It’s a subject this episode keeps revisiting. Rhaenyra doesn’t wish to be a broodmare while Daemon cautions her to not live in fear or she will miss the best parts of her life. This is honestly a masterful scene because you can sense the seduction that Daemon is trying to implement here. He’s slow playing this whole situation. Again, the question is why?
Even though the issues in the Stepstones have been resolved, the problem of Lord Corlys has not. In an audacious move, Lord Corlys has gone into negotiations with the Sea Lord of Braavos to marry Laena to the Sea Lord of Braavos’ son. This would be a catastrophic development for the throne because the combination of Corlys’ fleet with the power and authority of Braavos would essentially put a stranglehold on the Narrow Sea and cause chaos with exports, imports, and shipping lanes. Otto suggests they will have to make a similar move if this goes unchallenged, with the most likely candidate being Rhaenyra.
Later in her bedchamber, Rhaenyra receives a map showing a hidden passageway out of her room, which she takes, eventually meeting up with her Uncle Daemon. The two disguise themselves and head into King’s Landing for a night of revelry. The two go to several taverns and eventually a play that satirizes the question of succession. The crowd responds thinking that Rhaenyra will be a “feeble” Queen and that she “doesn’t have a cock.” Since Aegon is the male heir, he should be the one to rule. While Rhaenyra denounces it as treason and that she doesn’t care what the commoners think, Daemon rebukes her, stating that these are the people she intends to rule, and she dismisses them at her peril.
As to the next events…look we all knew the Targaryens were incestuous, but it doesn’t make the scene any less creepy. Daemon takes Rhaenyra to a brothel where multiple people are in various stages of coupling. The brothel scene comes across as less prurient and pornographic than we’ve seen in the past. It feels more like a place where people are free to express their sexuality openly and are not afraid to do what they want.
Daemon makes his move and becomes a sexual aggressor toward Rhaenyra. However, unexpectedly (at least for Daemon) Rhaenyra responds in kind and is very much into it. This becomes an immediate turnoff for Daemon. When Rhaenyra presses further, Daemon abruptly leaves. It’s clear he can’t perform unless he is dominating someone else. The person must be submissive. This goes to show that sex for Daemon is as much about power and control as it is about the act itself, maybe even more so.
You must appreciate the editing in this scene because while Daemon and Rhaenyra are involved in their tryst, Viserys forces Alicent to come to his chamber to have sex. It’s amazingly sad because there is clearly no passion between the couple anymore. It is an interesting juxtaposition to cut back and forth between these scenes. Also, Viserys is suffering from gout and possible gangrene as there are sores all over his body.
Faced with Daemon’s rejection, Rhaenyra returns to the Red Keep and promptly seduces Criston Cole. I’ve been thinking about Rhaenyra’s choice here and I think two things are equally true. One is that Rhaenyra was clearly sexually aroused and needed to get satisfaction somewhere. The other is that I think she truly desires Criston Cole more than Daemon. This whole scene is beautiful and masterfully shot. It is sensual, sexy, and passionate. The two take their time undressing each other which makes this scene extremely intimate. You can also see the struggle on Criston Cole’s face. He’s forsaking his sworn vows, but he’s clearly been carrying a torch for Rhaenyra for years. This is a scene where two people make love rather than fuck. Nevertheless, you see the look of triumph on Rhaenyra’s face when they finish. It’s an expression that screams “I took what I wanted.” Incidentally, kudos to Clare Kilner for directing this episode. Too often sex on Game of Thrones has been through the lens of the male gaze and it was nice to see it from a different perspective. It is a very sex-positive episode which I liked.
In an interesting development, Mysaria has stopped being a whore and has involved herself in a much more profitable business—selling secrets. She’s now known as the White Worm and is the de facto Varys of this show, complete with her own “little birds.” To the astonishment of no one, she sells the knowledge of Rhaenyra and Daemon’s actions to Otto Hightower.
Otto then presents this information to King Viserys. This scene does some heavy lifting and operates on multiple levels. Otto clearly is uncomfortable delivering this information to Viserys, to the point where Viserys has to keep saying “speak plainly.” However, at the same time, he clearly knows this information will benefit him and advance his grandson’s claim. Viserys cuts immediately through Otto’s bullshit. He’s amazed at how “sick with ambition” Otto is that he’d have Rhaenyra followed in order to destroy her reputation.
This scene dovetails into the next exchange between Alicent and Rhaenyra. Alicent is outraged by Rhaenyra’s actions and how cavalier she seems about the whole situation. Rhaenyra is hurt that Alicent would believe things she merely overheard and didn’t’ witness and is disgusted to find out that Otto told Alicent. It’s a grim realization for Rhaenyra that she’s being followed. Rhaenyra protests the allegations vehemently and lies to Alicent claiming that Daemon never touched her. She also conveniently leaves out her tryst with Criston Cole. The fact that Rhaenyra lies shows that she wants to preserve their friendship and is scared about revealing the truth. It also shows that Rhaenyra doesn’t trust Alicent like she once did.
A hungover Daemon is subsequently hauled before Viserys, and we get a strong moment where the dragon awakes in the King. He kicks Daemon repeatedly and even pulls a knife on him. Daemon not only doesn’t deny the claim he outright states it happened. “Better that her first experience be with me than some street whore” he says. It’s then that Daemon reveals his true aim when Daemon asks Viserys to allow Daemon and Rhaenyra to wed. Here, finally, the true ambitious Daemon reveals himself as he sees Rhaenyra as a means to the throne. Again, Viserys perceives Daemon’s true intent and banishes him, essentially telling him he never wants to see him again.
As seems to be the case these last few episodes, Viserys and Rhaenyra have a charged conversation. In a true One Ring moment, Viserys reveals a heated blade to Rhaenyra where hidden words discuss the “prince that was promised.” He stresses this is bigger than the throne and Rhaenyra’s “desires.” It devolves into an interesting discussion on perception and the double standards of men and women. Viserys touts that even if Rhaenyra didn’t do what she’s accused of, perception is everything and she’s “ruined” in the public eye. Rhaenyra retorts that if she was a man none of this would matter because she could father a dozen bastards and no one would care. Viserys doesn’t go so far as to strip Rhaenyra of her titles however he does put an end to her “tour” and orders her to marry Ser Laenor Velaryon. Rhaenyra agrees but only if Viserys removes Otto Hightower as Hand of the King. Rhaenyra chastises Viserys that he can’t wax poetic about duty and responsibility to the crown and the realm when his most trusted advisor’s self-interest and ambitions are so plain. Otto wants Aegon on the throne and will take any action he can to make that happen.
Sometimes I feel like this entire series is about having uncomfortable conversations, and I mean that in the best way possible. Otto and Viserys’ (final?) confrontation is without a doubt one of the best scenes so far this year. Viserys talks about how his father Baelon was dead of a burst belly five days after he was named Hand of the King, which turned out to be a “great day” for Otto. Otto is really taken aback by this and the implication by Viserys that Baelon’s death was something he celebrated—it almost offends Otto. Maybe I’m nuts but it felt that there was a weird subtext that maybe Otto had something to do with Baelon’s death? I’m probably reaching. In any case, it is a complex and nuanced scene because Viserys is very respectful of the role Otto has played saying the crown owes him a debt it can never repay and that Otto “taught him” how to be a king. However, he now recognizes that Otto sending Alicent to comfort him in his grief was a calculated decision and that Otto’s own self-interest means he’s been compromised. Viserys can no longer trust Otto’s council and strips him of the office of Hand.
In a final harrowing scene, Grand Maester Mellos brings Rhaenyra Moon Tea before bed, a concoction that will abort any potential pregnancies. This action is completely gut-wrenching for Rhaenyra, and you can see it on her face. She just had a conversation with her father where trust had seemingly been re-established. Yet this action signifies that Rhaenyra is just another “political headache.” Viserys shows no regard for his potential grandchild. Instead, he wants to get ahead of all possible fallout or complications. Viserys doesn’t see her as an heir but as an obstacle. Now it is important to note that the Grand Maester “says” it was from the King, but is that true? Things are never as they appear in House of Dragon. Either the Grand Maester received this information from Otto and acted on his own or Viserys told Mellos and Mellos acted on his own. Either way, the whole scenario is a deplorable act that attempts to strip Rhaenyra’s agency.
It is astounding to me how impactful, captivating, and memorable an episode can be that’s devoid of action and (almost) devoid of dragons. It is a true testament to the writing and execution on this show. With a royal wedding on the horizon and tensions high, the intrigue and political maneuvering are about to get even spicier.
House of the Dragon Episode Four ‘King of the Narrow Sea’ rates: 8/10 Balerions